TWO DAYS BEFORE his retirement as Maricopa County medical examiner, Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig swings open one of two silver vaults near the back of his office complex to survey last night's harvest. It's a walk-in refrigerator about the size of a restaurant's meat locker, and inside there are eight corpses. Except for one, their tagged feet, white and waxy, protrude from beneath sheets. The eighth, the uncovered body of a middle-aged man, lies on his back, legs twisted stiffly to the side, with heart-monitor patches still stuck to the matted gray hair and blue flesh of his bare chest.

The stench of death wafts out suddenly from the vault. It's a primordial odor that raises the hair on the back of your neck and sticks in your nostrils, a smell that Karnitschnig admits he has never grown immune to in 33 years as a forensic pathologist. He shuts the door quickly to lock it in.

The other refrigerator is where we keep the decomposed ones," he says matter-of-factly. The words have a vaguely Germanic roll to them. I won't open it because it smells too bad." Any death of questionable circumstances comes through the Medical Examiner's Office-the Midwestern tourist who drops dead on the golf course, the worker who dies cleaning out industrial tanks, the victim of a traffic accident, the suspected overdose, the patient who doesn't live through surgery, the suicide. Only about 30 percent are autopsied; for the rest, the cause and manner of death can be more easily determined. Most of this morning's dead, however, are weekend murder victims, and they must all be disassembled and examined, for they have ceased to be human and have become murder-trial evidence.

The number of deaths each year is about the same," Karnitschnig says with tired exasperation, but it used to be that suicides were much higher than homicides. Now the homicides are going up and up." The instrument of choice, most frequently, is a gun, but whereas in the past it was a Saturday night special, more and more it's a semiautomatic weapon with a multiple-shot magazine, and each bullet needs to be dug out, catalogued, the range and direction of fire determined.

Modern autopsies are more complex for other reasons, too: for the sheer technical wonder of forensic tests that match hair and blood and DNA, that can detect the residues of ejaculate, foreign hairs. Karnitschnig, on his tour, wends past white-jacketed technicians operating gas spectrometers and other machines that can detect minute traces of drugs, alcohol, inhaled volatile liquids, poisons.

Dr. K, as he is called as often for brevity as affection, is handsome in a graybeard way. Despite his cowboy boots, he is a short man, and like many short men he can fight like a badger. Depending on whom you ask, Karnitschnig is either a charming and compassionate mensch or an arrogant, Napoleonic son of a bitch. Judges like him for his precision and ability to explain complex medical issues to juries. He has tangled with law enforcement officers because he would often refuse to run tests they deemed essential. This is not some forensic delicatessen," he huffs.

Every time you went in there, it seemed you got off on the wrong foot," says Sergeant Mark Mullavey of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. He was not alone in his thinking. The animosity grew so bad that in 1985 then-county attorney Tom Collins tried to have Karnitschnig removed from his job. Karnitschnig says it was because his autopsies didn't fit in with what they wanted."

His former associate, Dr. Thomas Jarvis, who retired in 1988 and who still describes Karnitschnig as one of the four or five best in the country," responds, To hell with those guys. They're a bunch of amateurs. Heinz and I ran that office together for 17 years, essentially alone with very little outside help. We never had a cross word or an argument in 17 years."

Dr. K vehemently insisted that his office remain independent of courts and law enforcement agencies. The paper-pushers in the County Building are fearfully admiring of his intellect and pointed tongue, but found it so hard to deal with that independence that they are restructuring the job so they will never have to deal with another person like him again.

Attorney General Grant Woods, who owes Karnitschnig a major court victory from when Woods was a public defender, marvels at Karnitschnig's longevity in office. Temperamentally, it's surprising that Dr. K's been there so long, because he is outspoken and not fond of brown-nosing," Woods says. When you're appointed by the government, brown-nosing is a part of the job." In fact, Karnitschnig has consistently pushed the envelope in telling people just how stupid he thinks they are. He's sometimes right.

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Michael Kiefer